Claes Oldenburg

Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Claes Oldenburg born 1929
Lithograph on paper
Support: 748 × 620 mm
Transferred from Tate Archive Poster Collection 2015


Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar 1970 is a colour offset lithographic print of a drawing depicting an ice cream lolly with a bite taken from the top left corner. Melting ice cream runs from the bite down the side of the lolly, which has been decorated with what appear to be marshmallow letters of the alphabet. The print is an untrimmed proof for a print produced in 1970 in an edition of 250 (published by Paul Bianchini, New York) that was subsequently produced as a poster to be sold at Oldenburg’s Tate Gallery and Arts Council exhibition in London that year (in an unnumbered and unsigned edition of 300 but with a printed inscription indicating its source). The following year an overrun of 125 copies was overprinted and distributed to support the employees’ union of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, known as PASTA MOMA (the Professional and Administrative Staff of MoMA), and the copies were rubber stamped to that effect.

A common motif in Oldenburg’s work, the ice cream lolly first appeared as a sculpture in his installation The Store 1961. The artist explained that the Good Humor Bar in particular became an obvious subject as it was ‘always shown with a bite taken out of it. It used to slide into view on the sides of the Good Humor trucks parking outside my Store window.’ (Claes Oldenburg, ‘History of the Alphabet/Good Humor’, The Alphabet in L.A., exhibition catalogue, Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles 1975, unpaginated.) The artist had made a number of large soft sculptures of Good Humor Bars in 1963, but the idea for the print emerged in March 1970 following his promise to make an alphabet print in response to that created by Wim Crouwel, the designer for the catalogue of his exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1970. The intention was to make an alphabet print to coincide with this exhibition and its subsequent tour to the Tate Gallery, London. The conjunction of the alphabet and the Good Humor Bar was suggested by the artist Hannah Wilke – Oldenburg’s partner at the time – and was created as an homage to her (the bite suggested to Oldenburg the letter ‘A’, Wilke’s first name being Arlene). Between 1973 and 1975 Oldenburg reimagined the print as the model for a large-scale outdoor sculpture installed above Mulholland Drive in California.

This print was conceived as a work in its own right and was included in the publication Oldenburg: Works in Edition (1971) and again in Printed Stuff: Prints, Posters, and Ephemera by Claes Oldenburg: A Catalogue Raisonné 1958–1996 (1997). A sculptor who moves between performance and graphic art, Oldenburg treats his work as a totality in which key themes and motifs interweave in a variety of media. Taken as a whole, his graphic works represent a number of themes that have structured his practice throughout his career (see, for example, System of Iconography – Plug, Mouse, Good Humor, Lipstick, Switches 1970–1, Tate P07096). These motifs range across media, from performance and sculpture to the graphic arts, and include a shifting sense of scale, size and location, as well as exchanging hard for soft and organic for machine-made materials. Oldenburg sees this activity not as a series of discrete and isolated pursuits, but as a totality through which he engages with and represents the reality that he encounters every day. As the historian Martin Friedman explained in 1975:

Oldenburg’s art is a totality. The themes, each manifested in different media, are intimately related. Detailed drawings of objects, hastily scrawled notes, fragments of poetry, cardboard models, muslin and vinyl soft sculptures, and the recent large industrially fabricated steel pieces are elements of a total view. His ‘performance pieces’ that continued into the mid-1960s and combined people, objects and environments are essential to this view.
(Friedman in Oldenburg: Six Themes, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1975, p.9.)

Alphabet in the Form of a Good Humor Bar – and the larger body of graphic works of which it is an example – represents one piece within a constantly evolving oeuvre; a ‘total’ work that responds, in multiple media, to the variety and ephemerality of the everyday, material world.

Further reading
Claes Oldenburg: Works in Edition, exhibition catalogue, Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles 1971.
Richard H. Axsom and David Platzker, Printed Stuff: Prints, Posters, and Ephemera by Claes Oldenburg: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York 1997.

Andrew Wilson
November 2014

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